You are on page 1of 4

William Watson

Section 46373
4/19/2007

Man's Inner Desire


A psychological analysis of "A Party Down at the Square"

A Party down at the square by Ralph Ellison is the story of a ruthless burning of a "nigger" on a night

of chaos, and how a young man is sickened and fascinated by the horrific behavior of well respected,

Christian people, including himself. Through the actions and dialog of the characters in the story, the reader

is able to draw conclusions to the physiological motivation that drives the characters to act as they do. This

story is a perfect example of the Freudian concept of the Id, desires and fears, overriding the Ego, or values,

of the characters, and how that is able to happen more easily large groups of people.

The main character of the story is a boy from Cincinnati, a place where violence against negros never

reaches an apex like the event in the story. His ego, shaped from his experiences, is that of a northerner,

where the negros are relatively free from violence and free to act as they wish, and directly opposing the

event taking place. The id of the character however, is the same as that of any person, and described by Freud

as the "completely unconscious part of the psyche that serves as a storehouse of our desires, wishes, and

fears. The id houses the libido, the source of psychosexual energy.” and that is what comes forth through all

the characters at the "party" (Siegel). When the boy sees the plane crashing he says "I didn't know what to do.

I wanted to run, and I wanted to stay and see what was going to happen" (Ellison 391). At this point in the

story the boy's mind is telling him that he should run in fear, both from the crashing airplane, and from the

horrific event or burning a man, yet he doesn't. The fact that he stays isn't just out of curiosity, but because

the chaos of the situation is driving everyone there into an excited, if violent, state, and his mind which

normally follows the rules of the ego, and as stated by professor Dino Felluga, "seeks alternative expression

for those impulses that we consider evil" is instead offered to indulge in one of those evil impulses, and the

temptation breaks through the ego's repression.


William Watson
Section 46373
4/19/2007
Another thing the main character does that gives a view into the human mind is the fact that he

addresses the negro as "the nigger" (Ellison 390). This dehumanization is a reoccurring thing in human

society, any time in which a human being is forced or wishes, to do something horrible to another human

being; the only way they can accomplish the act without destroying their psyche is by making the person

something other than a human being. Much in the same way, the Nazi's saw Jewish people as just "Jews", the

boy from Cincinnati has to tell himself that the man burning in front of him is not a real person, but an object

or animal. He even describes him while he is burning as looking "just like a barbecued hog", and exclaims

how he was "some nigger!" (Ellison 393, 394). However, the main charter suffers consequences for the

betrayal of his Ego, and they come not in a mental perversion, but as a physical illness making him too weak

to leave his house.

The other important insight into the human mind, and reasoning behind the behavior of the characters,

is the analysis of how people act differently when in groups. The figurehead of the group mentality isn't the

main character, but Jed Wilson, for he is "popular with the folks" and expresses the entire group’s suspension

of values (Ellison 392). When the negro pleads with the mob made up of Christians for a little mercy Jed’s

reply is “ain’t no Christians around tonight” (Ellison 392). Just as Jed states, the people are no longer the

ones they are during the day, by banding together they have transformed into single-minded, violent, beings.

This mob-mentality is an insight into human behavior, when people band together into a mob they are given

power, and anonymity, and in the case of the story their power is irreproachable. With the power to do as they

wish without being blamable, the temptation to do evil encompasses the mind of the individual, and Ellison

shows us this behavior through the occupants of his “party”. The power of the mob is shown through the

death of the woman, for despite the horrible way she dies, the mob, as a whole, doesn’t even notice, you can

kill one and not even remotely stop their violence. This behavior does not go unsupported though, it directly

parallel the lynch mobs seen in Americas history, when a crime would go unsolved, violence would often

turn to the closest available victim, and they were unable to resist the power of a mob. The main character of
William Watson
Section 46373
4/19/2007
the story is sucked into this mob and views everything in the mob’s perspective of an all-power, inhuman

being, not his own. One such example of this assumed perspective is the characters reaction to the death of

the woman when he says, “Her white dress was torn. I saw one of her tits hanging out” (Ellison 392). Any

normal human would react with fear or pity, yet when in the grip of the mob’s thrall the main character only

coldly observes, devoid of natural emotions.


William Watson
Section 46373
4/19/2007

Works Cited
Ellison, Ralph “A Party down at the Square.” Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary. 6th ed. Ed. Charles
Bohner and Lyman Grant.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006. 390-394.

Felluga, Dino. "Terms Used by Psychoanalysis." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 28 November
2003.Purdue U. 19 April 2007.
<http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/psychterms.html>.

Siegel, Kristi. "Literary Trends and Influences." Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. 19 April 2007
<http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm#psycho>.